The great HS2 rail heist – Dispatches, Channel 4 8pm tonight

Imagine the public services the cost of this railway line could provide! Originally costed at £32.7 billion, latest estimates put it at £56 billion and rising fast.

“The government will soon start to spend billions of pounds on the HS2 high-speed train line, creating faster connections around England. However, some are questioning if this is the right part of the rail network to receive so much investment.”

Channel 4 synopsis of programme

“Heart of the South West, our Local Enterprise Partnership, gets its first school report and it’s not good”

Local David Daniel, a former senior government strategist, who has done much work on the East Devon economy, Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (HotSWLEP) statistics and forecasts and county growth figures (and presented these to EDDC and Devon County Council) has provided this analysis of the current “achievements” of HotSWLEP.

It must be recalled that HotSWLEP is sucking up vast amounts of money that in the past would have gone direct to local authorities and its board members (apart from a few councillors) have vested interests in housing development, the nuclear industry, commercial banking and Hinkley C recruitment.

Here is the report:

“As a result of the 2017 Mary Ney review of Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Governance, a newly formed Joint Scrutiny Committee is to scrutinise Heart of the South West’s (HotSW) annual performance review. This will take place on

Thursday, 14 February, in County Hall at 2.15.

There will, however, be no opportunity for public engagement or speaking and this Scrutiny Committee is not politically balanced but appointed by the very councils that agreed HotSW’s strategy in the first place.

Credit where credit’s due, this is progress! Remember, HotSW was appointed by the Government to act as our “devolution body in waiting” in 2011. It didn’t publish minutes of any meetings in the public domain until 2015. Yet it had already agreed a growth deal with the Government on our behalf the year before, 2014.

It has since published wildly ambitious strategy papers culminating with its Productivity Strategy in late 2017 aimed at doubling our local economy first in 18 years, later revised to 20 years, through transformational growth in the “Golden Opportunity” economic sectors of: Aerospace; Marine; Nuclear; Data Analytics and Healthcare. Economic growth comes from increasing the labour force and/or increasing productivity.

Demographically, the population is set to grow 0.8% p.a. but it is an ageing one and the growth of those of employable age will only be a fifth of this at 0.16% p.a. HotSW intends to “limit growth” in employment to 0.8% per annum and concentrate on raising productivity way above the national average. But even this “limited” growth in employment is five times the trend and will need substantial inward migration.

When this strategy was written, productivity in the HotSW area ranked 7th worst in England. An Office of National Statistics (ONS) report last week said: “The lowest labour productivity in 2016 was in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly. Other largely rural LEPs with relatively low labour productivity included Heart of the South West, Greater Lincolnshire, and The Marches”. The ONS now places HotSW lower at 4th worst, 18% below UK average.

We now have the opportunity to lift the lid and peer into how successful HotSW has been in meeting the targets it agreed, by reading the HotSW annual performance review for 2017, commissioned from Ash Futures.

Investment

HotSW has secured a total of some £245M to date from central government funds, though, when assessed on a per head basis, HoSW has actually received one of the lower allocations across the LEP network. These funds are supposed to be matched by funding from other sources.

LEPs have to be business-chaired and business-led and it was intended that LEPs would unlock private investment. However, the bulk of this matched funding is forecast to come from public bodies including 17% from local authorities. Only 23% will come from the private sector. In regard to this the report says: “Our consultations have also highlighted that the strategic plan is not perceived as having had any significant influence over private sector investment plans.”

Only seven of the 56 funded projects are yet complete in spending terms and so the bulk of the benefits are yet to come. Though this needs to be read in the context of a continuous stream of past funding previously distributed through Regional Development Agencies.

Of these projects, 30 are designed to create conditions for growth e.g. transport and digital infrastructure; 17 are designed to capitalise on distinctive assets in expected high growth sectors such as low-carbon and nuclear energy, marine, big data and photonics; and seven on maximising productivity and growth such as opening up employment space.

Several stakeholders feel that rural areas have been ‘overlooked’ by LEP investments and much of this due to this original identification of urban-based transformational opportunities. However, this should not come as a surprise given the composition of the original HotSW board which was dominated by individuals from a construction/development; defence/nuclear or big education background.

Here are some examples of the sort of projects submitted in the bid proposals:

£13 million to provide Hinkley C infrastructure and £55 million of pump priming to provide Hinkley housing;

a Nuclear Training College;

and one of the deals agreed includes £13.7 million loan funding to three developers to accelerate home building at: Frome, Brixham, Exeter and Highbridge. (You may ask why developers need such funding).

Much is made of the “Golden Opportunity” offered by Hinkley C. This is not the first nuclear power station to be built on the site. Hinkley A was constructed between 1957 and 1965 and Hinkley B between 1967 and 1976. So there should be plenty of historical evidence of the short and long-term economic benefits of such developments. Where are they or are they too insignificant to be found? It is no longer obvious that this is a growth industry.

Economic Measures and Growth

Lack of progress in making any significant changes to our economy are best illustrated by two direct quotes from the review:

“…….the review of economic data leads to the overall conclusion that the HoSW economy, at best, continues to track the ‘baseline’ growth scenario. That is, there is no firm evidence that it is achieving either ‘strong’ or ‘transformational’ growth as aspired to in the Strategic Economic Plan.” [Baseline – continuing to fall behind UK average; Strong – keeping pace with UK average; Transformational – faster than UK average]

“The plan outcome measures and objectives in the current economic environment do not currently look achievable, certainly in the short-term. Some of this is outside of the LEP partnership’s control (with more muted conditions nationally). However, the fact that many of the Strategic Plan outcome measures are expressed in relative terms does means that even if significant absolute improvements have been made to the HoSW economy, they may still never meet their outcome measures given that other areas will grow more quickly, notably London and South East. It is our view that some of the outcome targets, particularly those associated with the ‘transformational’ target, now look very aspirational in their nature.”

The only areas on track appear to be in the delivery of broadband coverage and in housing development density (development rates against existing stock).

Conclusion

For an unelected body that made a pitch to Government eight years ago that it could transform the local economy, including, initially, delivering health and transport, this below average performance from unlocking investment to falling productivity surely can only be seen as a failure?

The review catalogues the “critical issues” (excuses) for shortfalls: the economic context has changed; the expected ‘freedom and flexibilities’ have subsequently been rolled-back by Government; parameters [strings] have been tied around what could be funded; HoSW is a relatively new ‘construct’ and does not naturally represent a functional economic, or political, area as found elsewhere in the UK.

But that’s life. Any worthwhile strategic plan needs have been developed to be robust against a set of likely future scenarios. The “critical issues” listed above shouldn’t have come as surprise and the sensitivity of the plan to these sorts of “issues”, some use the term risks, should have been examined and reported. Another essential component, given the extreme uncertainty of how to improve productivity, should have been the development of a set of metrics and a feedback mechanism. So it is heartening to see that the reviewers make this recommendation:

“Currently, there is no ‘feedback loop’ back to the Strategic Investment Panel to develop its understanding of ‘what has worked well, and what not’ with investments made. Whilst we recognise that many projects are still at an early stage of development, we feel this is a missed opportunity. A better understanding of how investments have developed would lead to better long-term decision-making.”

On the basis of this review, is HotSW delivering value for money (our money)?

SOURCES:

Joint Scrutiny Agenda and Ash Futures Review reports pack:
https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/documents/g3570/Public%20reports%20pack%2014th-Feb-2019%2014.15%20Heart%20of%20the%20South%20West%20HotSW%20Local%20Enterprise%20Partnersh.pdf?T=10

Office for National Statistics latest productivity data:
https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/regionalandsubregionalproductivityintheuk/february2018#results-for-local-enterprise-partnerships-and-city-regions

HotSW Productivity Strategy:
https://heartofswlep.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/HeartoftheSouthWestProductivityStrategy.pdf

HotSW Strategic Economic Plan
https://heartofswlep.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Non-tech-summary-FINAL.pdf

“Struggling retailers closed a record 18,355 stores in 2018”

“More shops closed down in 2018 than in any year on record, as the crisis on the high street deepened and retailers went into full retreat.

Analysis for The Sunday Telegraph by the Local Data Company shows that 18,355 stores brought their shutters down for the final time.

There were around 13,676 shop openings last year, producing a net loss of 4,679 retail outlets, up more than 1,600 on 2017 as retailers such Marks & Spencer scrapped expansion plans.

Including banks and restaurants the total number of consumer outlets that closed was 50,828, also a record. …”

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/02/09/struggling-retailers-closed-record-18355-stores-2018/
(pay wall)

DCC Chief Executive appointed to group to ensure “orderly Brexit”

“The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has set up a network of nine local authority chief executives across England as part of preparations for the UK leaving the EU.

The Ministry said the chief executives would engage with councils in their region “to share information on preparations to support an orderly exit”.

It added that the chief executives would simultaneously be kept informed on national policy on EU exit that could have implications for local services, businesses and residents.

The chief executives participating in the network are:

Phil Norrey, Devon County Council (South West)
Becky Shaw, East Sussex County Council (South East)
John O’Brien, London Councils (London)
Nick Page, Solihull MBC (West Midlands)
Anthony May, Nottingham City Council (East Midlands)
Tony Reeves, Liverpool City Council (North West)
Martin Swales, South Tyneside Council (North East)
Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council (Yorkshire and Humber)
Richard Carr, Central Bedfordshire Council (East of England)”

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Investing in buses is better than building HS2 rail line

” …Improving the bus system would bring about significant productivity gains. If, for example, journey times became as reliable at peak hours as they are off-peak, the effective size of Birmingham would increase from 900,000 to 1.3 million people. Assuming UK cities would enjoy the same agglomeration benefits as those in France, Forth calculates that would mean an increase in output per head of 7%. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/feb/03/economic-benefits-of-local-buses-eclipse-unrealistic-hs2-target

Big business wins over public services with corporation tax black hole

“The government’s planned cuts to corporation tax look set to cost the public purse billions more in lost revenue than previously thought, according to new analysis.

The tax rate on company profits is slated to be cut from its current level of 19% to just 17% by the end of the decade. But even before the planned cuts, the UK already had one of the lowest corporation tax rates in the developed world.

An analysis based on HMRC data suggests that the loss of revenue from the planned cuts, initiated by former chancellor George Osborne but supported by incumbent Philip Hammond, could add up to more than £6bn.

HMRC recently raised its estimate for the amount a 1 percentage point increase in corporation tax could bring in for the Treasury from £2.8bn to £3.1bn per year – meaning the plan to cut taxes by 2p in the £1 could cost about £6.2bn.

Hammond confirmed in the autumn that he would go ahead with Osborne’s promises, despite the need to find £20bn a year more for the NHS by 2023-24.

There has been mounting opposition to the planned tax cuts, particularly as Britain’s public finances could come under huge strain from a disorderly Brexit.

Rupert Harrison, a former adviser to Osborne who now works at City investment firm BlackRock, said last week on Twitter that it was “hard to see why further cuts to corporation tax are good value,” while Labour seized on his comments.

Peter Dowd, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: “Even Osborne’s former adviser knows that further cuts to corporation tax are a bad use of public funds. Philip Hammond should cancel his plans for more corporate giveaways and invest in our public services.” …”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/28/uk-corporation-tax-cut-to-cost-billions-more-than-thought